Pearl Jam - Ten (Legacy Edition) Review

It’s been a few years since I’ve dusted off the old reliable, Pearl Jam’s 1991 debut LP. In the last decade, I’ve spun it fewer times than any of their other full-lengths. The reasoning is simple if not terribly sound—I know it front to back all too well. Not just the radio hits, of which there are at least four that can still be heard every day somewhere in the country, but the gems in between, too. I didn’t get sick of it; it just no longer became necessary to play. I could revisit any of the tunes any time I wanted by just sitting in silence and remembering. Most fans can. Hell, even those out there who loathe Pearl Jam can recite the classics, however grudging it might be to do so.

Of all of Pearl Jam’s records, Ten is the most monolithic. It both adheres to and defies the expectations of a first album. They hadn’t yet discovered the sort of band they wanted to be, and there’s an undeniable monotony to some of the classic rock stylings they churned through, particularly on the home stretch when the great ones are in the, ahem, rearviewmirror. The musicianship was stunningly stellar for a new band (though most of them had cut their teeth with other Seattle serpents) but the tricks were singular. Old metal riffs were cleaved of their overt darkness, sliced razor-thin in the uncommonly clean pedals and amps (for a grunge band, that is), the crack-crash drums were efficient but toothless and very few songs didn’t sound like a tweaked arrangement they had just tried out. The heavy moments sounded alike, as did the slower, lighter-waving pieces of the set. And while a couple flew by with the frenzy of punk, they still deliberated over familiar riffs and tuning.

And yet the defiance remained, often against our better judgment. Uncomfortable with the sludgy dinosaur riffs of Soundgarden and Alice in Chains? Bored by the post-punk bleed and clipped nihilism of Nirvana and Mudhoney? Pearl Jam sat comfortably in the middle, playing far faster and smarter than the boorish metal demons and far cleaner and more professional than the gangly fuzzbox gremlins. Pearl Jam weren’t scoffing at the hard rock pioneers but instead invited them in for a beer. Which helps explain why they were able to out-stadium their peers—the bombast was there, but it was reined in by personalities objecting to abstract pandering, filling in the chasm of quality with their slightly less-than-unique brand of play-it-if-it-sounds-good mentality.

Diving into the highs and lows of Ten is pretty much worthless at this point. Everyone owns a copy; even if they haven’t worn it out through repeated listens, I’m sure they can recite it as well as I. The focus is, as it rightfully should be, on this new mix by Brendan O’Brien. O’Brien, who mixed and/or produced virtually every PJ album since their sophomore effort, Vs., transforms the sound of Ten without ever explicitly mutating it. Aside from washing away some of the fuzz, you don’t even catch on right away with what’s different. The changes seem almost segmental, especially to those like me who have feasted on a steady diet of distortion for so long now that the reverb just sounds like a calming hiss. Leaner and cleaner, O’Brien’s Ten is somehow both more muscular to the gut and gentler to the nerves.

On “Alive,” Ed Vedder’s burr lurches above the dual guitars during the early verses, enhancing each drawn out syllable between the ones he spits out fast and feckless. During the climactic peal, Dave Krusen's drums really pop and Mike McCready and Stone Gossard battle gracefully. The keys are crisper on “Black,” but the blustery guitars howl louder, too. Jeff Ament’s bass twinges very audibly during the intro of “Porch.” The silvery riff of “Garden” is now clean enough to eat off of and the crackle in the bridge is like a sheet of firecrackers flickering over the hill. But the changes are generally pretty slight, and rarely distract from the enjoyment of old favorites, nor are they so dramatic that it will divide fans into camps over which mix is superior.

The added B-sides will probably satisfy the faithful but it’s a little disappointing in terms of volume. A number of early PJ classics like “Dirty Frank” and “Yellow Ledbetter” are missing, but fans already have multiple copies of them anyway. Instead, there’s a version of “Brother” with vocals, early demos of venerable Singles soundtrack staples like “State of Love and Trust” and “Breath” (here called “Breath and a Scream”) and a few unreleased takes, including the smoldering “2000 Miles Blues.” For a special edition of a twelve-time platinum release, the promise of bonus material is usually the key selling point, but six is a little slim to prompt the attention. 

As for the multiple editions, the more cost-friendly version with two CDs and a DVD of their MTV Unplugged set seems the best buy for those not wholly fanatical for the flannel warriors. If you’ve got the cash (not likely nowadays), there’s a true ultimate edition that adds four vinyls, a notebook replica and a cassette tape of early material. It’s the kind of stuff that lets the diehards drool over, but doesn’t make too much sense economically. But if there’s a mainstream band still around today that’s worth your obsession, this one’s probably still it. They are the real deal, and proved it even on their first release. The Legacy Edition fills in some of the gaps and gives us an interesting new take on the classic, but this one’s kinda selling artifacts to slack-jaws that are already on board. You know how PJ fans are: it could have just been the old mix and two slightly different B-side versions, but so long as there’s fancy new packaging, it probably would have gone Gold.

"Ten (Legacy Edition)" is on sale March 24, 2009 from Sony Legacy.

Matt Medlock


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